A new adventure: What I love about Amsterdam and the Netherlands (2/5)

Second article of the series! As we are about to leave the country I find myself making a list of what I love in the Netherlands… You can find the first article here 🙂

The people and the culture

There are so many thing I love about the Dutch culture that it ends up being just a long list… Maybe some would say that these are perceived qualities, that, of course, not everyone is like that (or would like them) and it could even be wrong to stereotype. But I really find that Dutch people have characteristics in common, and I can only suppose that they are culturally-based. So, I personally find that Dutch people are:

  • generally not cynical, when they care they really do. They like their city and their lives. They love, take pride in, and respect their country and their city;
  • very practical, there is often not much sentimentalism to be found. It is especially appreciated at work… but even in our everyday life. For instance, we voted to decide whether to keep or cut the trees in our street (we kept them). Or: “Ok, that building is a ruin. Should we put it down or pay to put it back in shape? Let’s vote.” And once the vote is taken, either way, it’s done – though, now that the canals inside the Singelgracht are listed as a World Heritage site, it will become more difficult to change things in the centre;
  • quite punctual;
  • direct, some would say blunt 🙂 It is not always seen as a quality, but I find that I like it. You always know where you stand, people say what they think. And if you’re unsure about something, rather than making a supposition (like “I don’t think they’ll expect me to work 40 hours in the week after the birth of our son”) you can just ask…;
  • proactive;
  • gender-equal (I don’t know if the word exists): I find men and women to be equal in people’s heads. Men do what the women do, the shopping, cleaning, they cook, they take days off for the children, change nappies, carry their babies, go to the playground, etc. and they find it perfectly normal.

Also, even though it was difficult at first for me, I actually like their relation to medicine – such as “Do not take medicines if you’re not sick” (of course!), or “Do not make tests or examinations if it is not necessary” . It costs money and all examinations have possible side-effects, and so it is considered to not be worth doing such things out of principle (I know it is a hot topic!).

I would maybe go as far as to say that there is a sort of “culture of nature” where everyone is expected to take their own responsibility regarding their own health, there are still many women giving birth at home (around 24 to 30% depending on sources) without medicalised painkillers – this is possible because of the density of population, you’re never far from an hospital – and traditionally people don’t even ask for the sex of the baby during the pregnancy: you’ll know when he/she is out, the natural way…

A direct aspect of this is certainly the way pregnancies and births are dealt with. Pregnant women go to midwives (unless there are some medical indications to do otherwise). They are told that they are “pregnant, not sick” and can continue biking as long as they feel good – and they often do until the end of the pregnancy! Only one echography is obligatory, though you can do more (we did at least five, with two that we paid ourselves). No tests are done which are not considered necessary – such as monthly checks for toxoplasmosis or the sugar test for diabetes. Birth can happen at home, in hospitals, or in bevalcentrums or birth centres, sometimes without any medicalised painkillers – though these are becoming more common. A big accent and help is put on helping you to breastfeed. If you give birth outside of your home and everything is fine, you are out 4 hours later (whatever the time of day or night, I should add 😉 ). You go back home where a kraamzorg will come every day for a week to help you learn how to be a parent, in your own home, with your own things. It was great.

In general, I would say that hospitals are really good, and they’ve been great with us every time we had to go, to the emergency rooms or to the huisartsenpost.

On a different subject, because the country is relatively small, and they, historically, did not have much farm land, they have grown to be very trade orientated. I think it is how they survived, by trading with other countries, using the sea or the roads. And I believe it is the reason why people still travel a lot – Spain, Austria, France, Germany, many people travel often! – and probably one reason why they learn other languages so amazingly fast…

The reconstruction of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia on the Bataviawerf in Lelystad, Netherlands. The original Batavia was built in Amsterdam in 1628, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavia_(ship), source: Jens Auer, flickr
The reconstruction of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia on the Bataviawerf in Lelystad, Netherlands. The original Batavia was built in Amsterdam in 1628, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavia_(ship), source: Jens Auer, flickr

The nature and weather

Oh the Dutch weather! The wind, the rain and the long winters 🙂 I actually love some of that.

The proximity to the sea. It is very close to go for the day or the afternoon, and it brings wind, rain and ever-changing weather. You could think a weather that changes in one hour could be tiresome (well when it’s sunny and it suddenly rains while you’re on the bike…) but it also means that when the weather is bad, you just have to wait for a bit and it will get better again… In reaction, many websites are available to give short-term weather forecast.

Lots of wind also means not much stagnant air pollution in the city, and you have fresh air! With the rain, and the northern location, when the sun is out it is gorgeous… Gold and light, the sun reflecting on the canals, and a breeze of fresh air 😉

Source: elrentaplats, flickr
Source: elrentaplats, flickr
Source: Paul Edward Joseph Graham, flickr
Source: Paul Edward Joseph Graham, flickr

There are also lots of parks in the city! And with all these parks, it turns out that there are quite a lot of birds – some quite exotic, like the rose-ringed parakeet, but also ones not-so-exotic though rarely seen in France, like herons. It’s great to see one standing on top of a boat on the side of a canal or even waiting for fish on Albert Cuypmarkt!

Herons waiting on top of a stand, Albert Cuypmarkt, source: Peer, flickr
Herons waiting on top of a stand, Albert Cuypmarkt, source: Peer, flickr
Source: RG1033, flickr
Source: RG1033, flickr
Heron standing on the hook of a house in Albert Cuypstraat, Amsterdam, source: Peer, flickr
Heron standing on the hook of a house in Albert Cuypstraat, Amsterdam, source: Peer, flickr
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A new adventure: What I love about Amsterdam and the Netherlands (1/5)

That’s it! We’ve made the choice and we are moving out of Amsterdam!! To the UK! And with that choice recently made, I find myself a bit teary… We have lived in this city for so many years! We have so many memories, so many places we’ve been to, so many to go still! Slowly this list started building in my mind. What we are going to leave behind us, without really knowing what we will find – some things will be similar, some things different, some may be better, and some might not be, or not for us…

So, here is the *long* list of what I have loved and do love about Amsterdam and the Netherlands…

I will publish five articles on the subject – to make it easier to read and to make it last as we are going to busy in the coming weeks!

  1. Article 1 is about:
    • The freedom I associate with living in Amsterdam,
    • The healthy lifestyle,
    • The atmosphere.
  2. Article 2 will cover:
    • The people and the culture,
    • The nature and weather.
  3. Article 3 will contain:
    • What there is for children and mums/dads,
    • The advantages of a small-sized capital.
  4. Article 4 will cover what I love in the Netherlands more generally
  5. And article 5 will be about:
    • My personal link to Amsterdam and the Netherlands
    • And the conclusion to the series of articles 🙂
Amsterdam - source: Daniel Foster, flickr
Amsterdam – source: Daniel Foster, flickr

The freedom

One thing I love in Amsterdam is the way you can be who you want to be, there is no judgement. Or maybe to be more precise, people let you be. I guess we all have our things to do and deal with and it is a city and country with a high population density – so you just can’t keep your nose in everybody else’s business or clothes’ or lifestyle preferences…

My father says the feeling of freedom I have may also come from the fact that I am a foreigner and do not really have to follow the rules of the country or city. Whenever I do something strange, I have an excuse 😉 “She is French…” There could certainly be something true in this, but still, amidst a million people and more tourists, and with a culture allowing it, it really feels like you can dress like you want, eat what you want – and let the others do the same.

The healthy lifestyle

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about Dutch food – Germans complain about the bread, French about the simplicity of the dishes and the sandwiches for lunch. But the thing is that we don’t need that much food for lunch, or even warm meals – if we ate like a lot of French do at lunch it would make us sleepy in the afternoon, like it does to them. And bread and vegetables are good for you.

As is biking to work. Everyone bikes. And there are bikes for every needs. And with names! The omafiets (grandma’s bike) is for women in general, while the mamafiets is for mothers, with more room in front to put the seat for the child 😉 And the bakfiets to transport your children or your groceries, or even your new fridge…

Source: batLo, flickr
Source: batLo, flickr
Source: Amsterdamized, flickr
Source: Amsterdamized, flickr

A lot of people I know are really healthy and fit, eating that way and cycling everywhere. It is true that most dishes are simple (I have been told that it comes from the Calvinist heritage), but they’re made with good products. You can easily find organic shops, or even organic food in normal supermarkets. And markets! Even non-organic products can be good – free-range chicken, tasty tomatoes, bread without “E”s…

To add to the list, I find that (and it’s common knowledge here, among internationals) Dutch people are very good at balancing their work and personal lives. Of course it depends where you work and in which field, but it is commonplace to start at 8.30, take 30min for lunch (no spending one hour in traffic jams), finish work at 17.00, go home and spend time doing sports or with your family and/or partner. If your child is sick it’s fine, work from home. Do not work or reply to emails or phone calls on holidays or in the evenings and week ends, etc.

Another common thing is for people with children to take regular day’s off. It might have been pushed by the cost of daycare, which is rather expensive, but the culture also goes towards it. In the end, you often see that dads take one day off per week (papadag or “daddy day”) while mums take another day (mamadag or “mummy day”) and the babies and toddlers only spend three days in daycare. A friend even told us that she had had a remark from her daycare once because both parents work 5 days a week and the daycare employees think (and say) that it is bad for the children to not be with their parents more…

The atmosphere, and more

The public transports are great: trams, buses, trains, they’re everywhere! This is especially true in Amsterdam, but also generally true in all Dutch cities. Then add to that the small canal streets of the centre, which are a tad difficult to drive in and park, and Amsterdam’s centre is almost car-free! And quiet! It makes for a really nice atmosphere… with people on bikes or on foot, the canals, and a bit of fresh air 🙂

Also something I particularly like is the absence of rails alongside the canals. Of course, there are rails on the bridges, to stop people and the few cars from falling over, but nothing is there to spoil the view along the sides of the canals. We all should take our responsibility 🙂

Canal in Amsterdam - source: Mariano Mantel, flickr
Canal in Amsterdam – source: Mariano Mantel, flickr
Source: Jim Nix, flickr
Source: Jim Nix, flickr

Thanks for reading and see you next week for the second part of this series of articles!

The hardest thing

It’s been a little while since I wrote anything – why? Well because there is a big change coming for our family and we’ve been busy thinking, deciding and planning, though nothing is confirmed yet so it will have to wait a little bit longer before I can really announce it here 😉 But linked to it and coming back on the notion of change, and what the next change will mean for us, I have been kept awake at night lately, thinking.

Thinking about changes in life, in relationships, in ourselves. How it happens sometimes, against our will. How we sometimes make it happen, though less often. We usually only change things when they are going badly – and sometimes not even then.

“Don’t fix something that’s not broken” That sentence kept me awake, because it is true. What need do we have of changing things that are going well – even if it’s not perfect, nothing is and it also won’t be perfect once changed. We get used to ways, our routine, our habits, our friends, the way life is when it’s mostly good. Nothing bad in that, you cannot keep on moving. If you do that, you never settle, never make friends, and you have a good chance of screwing up your child’s education and relationships.

But does it also mean that we really shouldn’t change things that are going well? Or can we still try? Take the risk? Because change can be nice if scary. Lose everything for something different. How do we make that kind of choice? It’s a tough one. And a tough one to impose on our son, who doesn’t have a say in the matter.

Maybe it can be a question of schedule, of the right moment in life, when everything seems to come together? But, to be honest, I realize I don’t really believe in these moments anymore. They’re an idea, a feeling I had when I was younger and less experienced. Now it seems to me, more and more, that or we make these moments happen, or they just don’t exist and we push until we get what we want. Because they are times when if you don’t push, nothing will happen, what you want is just not going to happen.

But what is it that we want?

And how can a change be a good one when it is making me cry and keeping me awake at night?

So I’ve been reading, looking on google for clues and books, and I found this: Finding peace with uncertainty.

I especially like the part on How to get good with uncertainty – at which I am really bad, even more so since I started having anxiety issues – I loved these:

“See the wonder and opportunity in change.”

“Become aware of your clinging. (…) What are you clinging to? Often it’s just an idea — the idea of you and a romantic partner, an image of who you are.”

“See the downsides of clinging.”

“Experience the joy in the unknown.” So true! How bored I get when all is known! It actually made me think of a poem I love by a poet named Ben Orlin:

“The Hardest Thing

The hardest thing for unproved men—
it scares them to the bone—
starting out a journey
with ending still unknown.

The hardest thing for wiser men—
it makes their blood run cold—
carry out a journey
whose ending is foretold.”

If life was known, how boring, how scary…

Still, what will my son think of us, of the choices we make? How do we decide? Why do we choose change?

Because we want the years to count. Because we want a bigger house. Because we hope that it will be good for our family, good for our son. Because our life here is good but not perfect and we hope it can get even better.

The limit I draw is that I want us to make our choices for positive reasons, not negative ones. I want to choose because I hope, not because I run away or because I fear – though it can be very hard sometimes to entangle feelings and reasons to be sure, and it’s never so simple that there is only one reason behind what we wish for and decide…

To conclude, there is a wonderful Spanish proverb that I heard years ago and even wrote down to keep in my wallet: “Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.” “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

Sailing the unknown - Russ Seidel, flickr
Sailing the unknown – Russ Seidel, flickr